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Why PTP/NYC is presenting Arcadia and Pity In History in rep
On the surface, Howard Barker and Tom Stoppard make an incongruent pair. With vastly different styles and temperaments, the two contemporary British playwrights seem poles apart. Barker's work is typically dissonant, muscular, and politically charged, while the better-known Stoppard revels in sophisticated intellectual workouts, executed with exquisite Wildean flair.
Yet the artistic directors of PTP/NYC saw something complementary there, which is why they're presenting Barker's Pity In History and Stoppard's Arcadia in rep at Atlantic Stage 2. Both shows explore passion and humanity, just in different eras and ways.
Originally produced as a teleplay for the BBC in the mid-'80s and now making its stage debut, Barker's Pity in History concerns an artist struggling to survive England's 17th-century civil war. In Arcadia, seen twice on Broadway in Tony-nominated productions, Stoppard intertwines two intricate narratives about art and science set almost two centuries apart. "We do plays that are socially engaged and aware," says Arcadia director Cheryl Faraone, who cofounded the formerly Maryland-based troupe with Richard Romagnoli and Jim Petosa in 1987. "We started out calling ourselves a political theatre company in the nation's capital, but political has become too narrow and straightjacketed a word." In 2007 the company relocated to NYC, and has presented vibrant and challenging repertory seasons every summer since.
Plays by Barker are almost always part of PTP/NYC's programing. In fact, it's the only professional theatre company in the U.S. that regularly mounts shows by the dramatist who dubs his work "the Theatre of Catastrophe." "I think the play reflects our own condition -- the division in our country, and even in Europe, and the resultant confusion, alienation, and polarization of our cultures and our society," says longtime Barker champion Romagnoli, who directs Pity in History. "Howard was inspired by Thatcher's rise within the Tory Party and the creation of her own manifesto of Conservative vision when he wrote this play. He is all about incongruity and subversion, things that I find delicious in art."
Faraone says she selected the Stoppard play because it exemplifies "intelligence, civility, and the ability to debate and disagree. I couldn't bear the coarseness, the stupidity of the sound bites and the anti-intellectualism that we were being subject to last summer -- all of the lead-up to what we have now. The experience of doing the play seemed to me to be very much a psychic counteraction to what was happening."
Both directors note that neither playwright would identify these works as political. And yet, "what has politicized Stoppard is the chaos of our current atmosphere," says Faraone. As for Barker, Romagnoli says, "I think his plays are very highly charged because any time you hold something up to be evaluated, taking it apart and looking at it poetically, you are able to, maybe, see things differently; people respond to that in a political way."
Even as the two plays reflect their authors' distinctive aesthetics -- Arcadia is perfectly wrought and elegant while Pity in History is rough-hewn and opaque -- both works share a common passion for language and ideas. The characters in Arcadia engage with wit and erudition in lively debates that embrace a wide range of subjects: the second law of thermodynamics, Romanticism versus Classicism, Fermat's last theorem, Chaos Theory, and the end of the universe. Barker's play examines the role of an artist caught up in a political maelstrom, surrounded by characters who indulge in religious zealotry or patriotic fervor.
"I love that Gaukroger [the artist in Pity and History] is a cynic," says Romagnoli. "He does his art for money because that is the only way for him to survive in such a divided culture, but he has his own passion, his own journey at the end." There is a similar arc in Arcadia, as one character takes up another's life's work after she dies. As Romagnoli puts it, "If you can somehow chart a journey for a character -- the via dolorosa of his or her life -- then you have something that I think you can give an audience at the end."
Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
Top image: Steven Dykes and Kathleen Wise in Pity in History. Photos by Stan Barouh.